Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers: Will Kobe Bryant Leave the Lakers?

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Kobe Bryant is the most iconic sports figure out west. Whenever he comes to mind, you can’t help but to envision him in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey. In fact, over the last 18 years, the two have become synonymous.

He’s raked in the dough from the Lakers, from his first contract, which paid him $1,015,000 in the 1996-97 season, to the $23.5 million he’s to be paid in the 2014-15 season, Kobe has deposited close to $279.7 million of the Lakers’ bucks.

That’s a pretty steep price for any player but well justified in the blood, sweat and cursing Kobe’s left on the hardwood his entire career. At the end of his current two-year deal Kobe can become the longest tenured player with one team in NBA history (20 years), surpassing John Stockton’s 19 years with the Utah Jazz.

But will he finish his career in a Lakers uniform?

He owns a great NBA resume with five championships and a ton of awards including one Most Valuable Player, two Finals MVPs, 17-times player of the month, 32-times player of the week, two Olympic gold medals, two All-Star Game MVPs, two-times All-NBA second team, two-times All-NBA third team, 11 All-NBA first team awards, three All-Defensive second team and nine All-Defensive first team awards.

Without question Kobe’s been the man for some time in Los Angeles.

With accolades like his, it’s easy to understand why he’s made a quarter of a billion dollars on the hardwood. He’s never scheduled surgery that interferes with the regular season, missed games unnecessarily or had a beef escalate from the locker room to the court.

He’s never been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, and when involved in scandal his production on the court hasn’t wavered (take notes, Paul George). He’s been everything to Los Angeles and the Lakers. Kobe has been uncompromising and relentless in his efforts to bring nothing but parades to the city of LA.

On championship paper what separates Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant at the moment is one more ring. Bryant has expressed nothing but the ultimate in desire to tie or surpass MJ. Should he acquire enough rings to tie the G.O.A.T. before retirement he’d end the “who’s better, Kobe or Jordan?” discussion.  Both might end up being held in the same regard.

Now in the twilight of his career, and still on the hunt for at least one to two more championships, will the Lakers stand in the way of Kobe’s personal ambition? If so, do they owe it to him to step aside?

It’s not a question of preference. Surely the Buss family, Mitch Kupchak and anyone who supports the purple and gold would be devastated to see Kobe running the floor for another team. It would appear awkward and anything but authentic.

However the Lakers find themselves in a very precarious position. They’ve committed $48.5 million to Kobe over the next two seasons, and with one of the more quiet summers in Lakers history, their future and ability to achieve another championship is unknown – especially within the next two seasons.

When criticized about the size of his new contract by U.S. national soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Kobe responded, “But the one perspective that he’s missing from an ownership point of view is that you want to be part of an ownership group that is rewarding its players for what they’ve done while balancing the team going forward.”

Words from a hardwood great that may some day contribute his wisdom in an executive role. However for now we’re yet to see what kind of Kobe will return to the Lakers next season. We need to know if his level of play will be commensurate with his ambition.

Best-case scenario, he’s the same Kobe and the Lakers front office are able to build a championship caliber team. Worst-case scenario, Kobe’s a shell of his former self and the Lakers drown in more misery. Middle ground between the two is Kobe’s still effective and the Lakers endure another season playing well below .500, a waste of time for the aging veteran.

With limited time and athleticism why wouldn’t Kobe want to chase another ring elsewhere? Kobe will always be one of the greatest Lakers and when enshrined into the Hall of Fame, he’ll receive accolade in purple and gold.

However he’s been playing two careers simultaneously, one for the Lakers and the other against Jordan. It’s hard to say Kobe won’t do anything to win another championship. That’s not to suggest he isn’t loyal to the Lakers, but rather he’s the ultimate competitor. He’s unyielding in his desire to play on the big stage.

In the event that the Lakers are unable to piece together a team capable of pushing the themselves back into contention, former Lakers forward Rick Fox believe Kobe would be willing to move on to greater contention pastures.

Fox said, “I would not put it past him,” in a recent interview with Larry King. “If there isn’t a real opportunity for [Bryant] to win a championship there, the thought of him leaving may shock Lakers fans, but I wouldn’t put it past him going in search of one or two more championships. Personally, I think it’s going to get done in New York. I really do. I just believe in Phil (Jackson). I’ve been around him. I know Kobe has had his greatest success with Phil in a leadership capacity. So the reuniting of the two is not an unrealistic thought.”

Kobe hasn’t publicly stated that he’d entertain the thought of leaving Los Angeles in pursuit of another championship, but anyone who has followed Bryant knows that sometimes his silence is deadlier than his speech.

Although the Lakers need to tread carefully and construct a team to Bryant’s approval, the New York Knicks are of equal stature currently. Both teams recently had sub-par seasons and have many decisions to be made before the next season begins. However the Knicks do have Phil Jackson as team president, and that makes a difference.

If the Knicks are able to keep Carmelo Anthony in town, the chances of acquiring Bryant increase. The Lakers could facilitate a trade on Bryant’s behalf that would most likely consist of the Lakers receiving a combination of Tim Hardaway Jr., Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani.

On the other hand, if the Lakers get out to a hot start next year, Bryant will be grounded in Hollywood for the duration of his career.

At this point the idea of Kobe leaving Los Angeles is premature. The Lakers are still without a head coach, nor have they made their draft selection – their highest pick since drafting James Worthy first overall.

Worst-case scenario, if Kobe selects personal ambition over long-time loyalty, the Lakers organization owes it to him to be accommodating. He’s delivered nothing but greatness to the Lakers. He’s done his job as a player and team leader. Should he eventually decide to move on, he deserves Los Angeles’ respect.

No matter how much it hurts.

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